A few years ago, my husband and I read Michael Pollan‘s book The Omnivore’s Dilemma and decided a change was in order: We would shy away from mass-produced, industrialized food and strive to eat organic meats and vegetables, preferably from small family farms.

In retrospect, our decision seems charmingly naive. Rather than satisfying our desire to become more educated, responsible eaters, it instead created a conversation around the very definition of “responsible” eating. (Call it The Consumer’s Conundrum.)

For instance:

* After 35 years, our local market will stop carrying produce. The owner can’t compete with the four grocery stores in our town plus the organic Roots Market down the way. He rarely carried organic fruits and vegetables and while he stocked local produce during the summer and fall, I often bypassed his store to snap up organic offerings from a national chain. How culpable does that make me in his business’s restructuring?

* My children and I love to spend summer afternoons at local Pick-Your-Own orchards, where we often see huge contraptions coating trees and bushes with pesticides. If we forfeit our trips to these small, family-owned farms and instead buy prepackaged, organic produce grown at industrialized organic farms, what impact does that decision have on the family orchards in our proverbial backyard?

Peaches from the local Catoctin Mountains. They aren't organic. But they hail from within a 50-mile radius. Are these a more responsible choice?
Peaches from the local Catoctin Mountains. They aren’t organic, but they hail from within a 50-mile radius. Are these a more responsible choice?

* Likewise, which is more responsible: Snapping up these non-organic peaches from the nearby Catoctin mountains, or buying organic peaches that hail from other states and came to our grocery store via cross-country trucking?

* Should I stop at the roadside farm stand in Hebron, MD, for corn and tomatoes after a day at the beach? I’m pretty sure the farm isn’t organic, and I have no idea if it uses genetically modified seed. But if I wait to buy from a big-name grocery store, whose pockets am I lining?

Rumbleway Farm in northern Maryland is a certified-organic, family-owned and -operated farm.
Rumbleway Farm in northern Maryland is a certified-organic, family-owned and -operated farm.

* We love this organic family farm near the Delaware border that raises grass-fed cows, wandering chickens, wallowing pigs and heirloom turkeys. But we log more than 180 miles in the car when we take a trip to buy meat. That’s a pretty big carbon contribution for happily raised animals. Is it responsible?

I raise these points because the whole issue of responsible eating is a thorny one. I’ve never been a fan of situational ethics, yet here I am, parsing my food purchases based on the specifics of any given day. The dilemma is particularly pronounced this year because we’re letting our backyard garden lie fallow and have to buy all of our produce from …

… somewhere.

So here’s where we stand (at this particular hour on this particular day): Local is taking precedence over organic. Yes, we want to make healthy choices in our food purchasing, and organic is the healthier choice. But the organic label on a piece of Florida fruit no longer trumps the same type of fruit raised and harvested just down the road. We’ll continue to stop in Hebron for family-grown corn and tomatoes (although I might ask the teenagers tending the stalls a few more questions about farming practices). I’ll make it a point to buy as much produce from my local garden market as long as it’s available.

As for our meat? I really love those happy cows and chickens. We’ll continue driving to our northern Maryland farm for meat. It’s healthier than feedlot beef and industrialized pigs, and I love supporting the hardworking family who raises these animals. Perhaps we’ll slash the number of times we go, buying in bulk so we don’t have to make the trip quite as often.

It isn’t easy, this responsible eating. But there’s value in the dilemma. The process of grappling with these questions and arriving at our own individual answers creates a food philosophy that my husband and I — and our children — can build on. It takes the entitlement out of eating and turns mealtime into a conscious decision: “This is what we’re putting on our plates.

“And this is why.”